Monday, October 28, 2013

NZINGA, THE WARRIOR QUEEN - A Review of the Cultural Stage by Elizabeth Orchardson Mazrui


Prof. Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui is an artist, writer and lecturer with a keen interest in the history and culture of the coast-based Mijikenda community of Kenya. Her writing spans academic books/articles, poetry, non-fiction titles and children's tales. He works include Nzinga The Warrior Queen, Sheila Let's Write to God, Adventures of Mekatili, A Revision Text in Art and Design for Secondary School, Art and Design for Forms One and Two and Art and Design for Forms Three and Four. Her most recent offerings are The Pain and Joy of Being (poetry collection, ISBN 9966-7489-0-3) and Travels in the Holy Land and Other Countries (ISBN 978 9966 7489-4-2).  Travels in the Holy Land, which was released during the 2013 book fair chronicles her visits to Egypt  and other places during her childhood and is enriched by numerous pictures from her personal collection. 

Below is a peer review of Elizabeth's, Nzinga The Warrior Queen, written by Dr. Rhone Fraser.

Alexander Nderitu

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Greetings Professor Orchardson,

My name is Rhone Fraser and I earned my Ph.D. in African American Studies in 2012 from Temple University.  I am writing to thank you for your phenomenal play on Queen Nzinga called "Nzinga, The Warrior Queen."  I appreciated your inclusion of the struggle of King Mbande in his leadership that allowed Europe via Portugal to colonize the whole continent.  I appreciated your use of the griot Kabunga who essentially interpreted the dreams and signs and gleamed the fundamental meaning of weak leadership that gave Portugal an entrance.  

On page 11, the griot tells King Mbande before he dies that "the ancestors say that Mbande a Ngola has not done enough to rebuke his clansmen in Kongo and Ndongo...remember the misdeeds of those bloodlines.  Instead of taking this to heart, he curses the ancestors and makes no effort to rebuke his clansmen.  I think you provide the ideological and spiritual explanation for how Portugal was able to infiltrate Ndongo.  The griot later tells Mbande: "the ancestors say at times the King has cooperated with some slave dealers and the conquistadores and grown wealthy as a result."  Kabunga says that Ndongo "needs a fearless leader who will not compromise its people."  I think personally Dr. Richardson, that in this exchange you point to the Africans' own complicity in the slave trade that needs to be discussed more often.  This needs to be talked about more often.  A debate between Henry Louis Gates and John Henrik Clarke dealt with the avoidance of the complicity of Africans in the slave trade (so did a debate in Negro Digest between Martin Kilson and Addison Gayle Jr.).  

Your play speaks to the fact that the slave trade was able to occur in Africa because, as your Kabunga said, leaders of ethnic groups compromised their people and shunned the advice of their griots. I appreciated seeing the conflict between Nzinga and her nephew Aidi unfold, mainly because I see President Obama as Aidi and how he is used by the IMF-controlled Wall Street elite to undermine the interests of justice and harmony in the world.  Nzinga tells Aidi: "the Portuguese do not respect you, they are using you."  If I was in a room with Obama, I would tell him the same thing: that it is better to argue more forcefully against austerity than in public to serve the interests of the Wall Street elite.  Aidi tells Nzinga: "When I become King, I shall pave the way...for the greater good of Ndongo.  I shall follow the example of Kongo and cultivate cordial relations with Portuguese for the good of our people."  This is the common question of colonization that reappears in postcolonial literature.  The idea that by assimilating, the assmilated one will ultimately benefit the colonized group.  This is the tragedy of Friday in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, the tragedy of Caliban in Shakespeare's Tempest, the tragedy of colonized groups, where the assimilated individual think they will ultimately provide their colonized group with the greater good.  

You also show how the Europeans dismissed the role of women in the military.  The Portuguese commander Laco tells Aidi: "when you become King, you must put an end to this system of women soldiery. It is disgusting."  It reminds me of what Hazel Carby described as the cult of true womanhood ascribed to upper class Victorian women that African women were historically chastised for not emulating.  Aidi tells Nzinga: "even the mulatto women have learned to imitate the Portuguese women to great advantage."  Aidi believes fundamentally in Portugal, like Lorraine Hansberry's character in her play Les Blancs, Abioseh Matoseh, fundmanetally believed in the English.  He believed he would change things as the first Catholic bishop.  Similar to Abioseh, Aidi believes that slavery can be used for the benefit of Ndongo: "we will be able [once assimilated] to insist on a greater percentage of revenue, slaves, export, and import duties, port changes and other levies."  I liked reading Nzinga tell Da Sousa that "women have been soldiers in out country for centuries." 

Dr. Orchardson, I also like how you handle the role of the Catholic church in slavery.  Not overtly celebrating it, but still maintaining a very strong presence.  A lot of the Portuguese inroads would not have been made into Ndongo were it not for the church. The Catholic bishop tells Da Sousa: "we are seeing positive acceptance amongst the African elite.  It is at this level that the people begin to reject traditional beliefs in favor of Christianity." This reminded me of the argument held by a lot of my friends that Christianity and Islam via Europe has ravaged Africa.  This reminds me of the English missionaries in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and the Catholic church in Malidoma Patrice Some's "Of Water And The Spirit."  Bishop fights with Laco. Both want the same goal of colonizing Ndongo, but in very different ways: Laco uses the gun whereas the Bishop uses deception and the Bible. When Nzinga takes over Mbande's role, to the scorn of Aidi, she tells Samba to arrange for their most trusted soldiers to infiltrate the Portuguese empacassiero ranks and act like they are on the side of the Portuguese.  I like how you show the brilliance of female military strategists in ways that have not been fictionalized before.  

My only question in this whole play is on page 104, where you have a transition between a conversation of Nzinga & Samba, then a discussion with DaSousa without using the stage directions in the consistent manner you were using it before.  On page 108, when Nzinga is defeating the Portuguese militarily, Da Sousa says that he was instructed by His Holiness to deal with Nzinga "gently."  You show here what Chancellor Williams writes about, how Nzinga used her Catholic baptism to her military advantage.  Toussaint L'Ouverture and Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines did the same thing by turning Catholic deities into Voudou deities that allowed them to recognize their African gods in their successful military battles against the Spanish, French and English.  We see how Samba successfully trains the empacassieros to defend Ndongo.  One of them says: "powerful nkisi and ndoki are keeping her safe.  In that case the Portuguese will never be able to annihilate her."  We later see how Nzinga in a spirit form eludes the capture by the Portuguese.  They admit: "we fight to earn ourselves a decent life, not to make Portugal greater."  I think this, Dr. Orchardson,  is the truth of so many working class Americans.  They are not working because they have pride in their country and they want only America to thrive in the world, but because they want a decent life.  And these empacasseiros will earn that decent life even if it means acting like a Portuguese in order to fight on behalf of Nzinga.  This is exactly what Nimi does when he feigns to serve Laco, but as the empacasseiro leaves, he vows to kill this empacasseiros.  Your play speaks to the ways that Nzinga definitely infiltrated the Portuguese ranks with Ndongo supporters who, like Nzinga, acted like they liked Portugal or its institutions, but later served to undermine them in the service of the Ndongo kingdom.  I liked reading how Nzinga rejects Kasanje's proposal in marriage: "I cannot think love and marriage when war is staring me in the face."  I think you show a deep and profound personal struggle that was true of a lot of women who devoted themselves to anticolonial liberation like Claudia Jones, like Ella Baker, like Harriet Tubman, like Frances Harper, like Sojourner Truth.  Each of these women, like Nzinga understood the colonial implications of marriage and they could potentially straitjacket their more important spiritual work and military work to fight colonization.  Kasanje however is persistent: "marry me and I will give you my word that I shall fight alongside."  Nzinga knew this meant that she would "behind" Kasanje, and not with him.  She tells him: "as long as I shall live, I shall fight the Portuguese.  They will never subjugate Ndongo. 

This reminds me of Queen Nanny.  Jamaican thespian Andrene Bonner right now is writing a one woman show on Queen Nanny that I look forward to reading.  You also show the achilles' heel of many white men in battle, which was the love of mulatto women, which Laco definitely was victim to.  Laco's eventual military loss is attributed to his frequent visits to Luanda to sleep with mulatto women: "the white soldiers have become totally undisciplined and lazy because of the indolent life they lead when Laco is in Luanda."  Part of the reason the Portuguese lost was because of their uncontrollable sexual desires for mulatto women.  Ted Lange who wrote a play on George Washington told me about the child that Washington had with a Black women, and the popular term that men had for such Black women, "bed warmers."  We saw Thaddeus Stevens' "bed warmer" in Spielberg's film on Lincoln.  But you show a deeper degree of it and how it affected their military strength.  

Dr. Orchardson, I also like how you show the moral struggles among colonial Catholic church members, like the Bishop, in cooperating with genocide: "God has shown me that my hands are tainted with the blood of innocent people. In my fervent guest for the rapid spread of Catholicism, I erred in promoting wars.  I am as guilty as you are."  The Bishop has a revelation when Da Sousa continues to press for a military solution against Nzinga, when he has been using the diplomatic route all along.  This reminds me of Obama's choice to go the military route to replace Gadafi and Al-Assad instead of engaging in diplomacy.  The military route that Da Sousa wants to take ties the hands of the church who is preaching peace.  I like the conflict you show between Laco and Bishop.  When Laco is captured, you show the compassion in the Ndongo for not slaughtering him in ways that Laco would have probably done himself.  I like at the very end how Nzinga is revived.  While I was reading and thinking that she was dead, people mistook her for Samba and she was able to defend the honor of the Ndongo at the end, and be recognized for exactly that. 

I thank you for telling this whole story of a woman whom Western history wants to forget in order to keep our patriarchal attitudes.  Queen Nzinga represents the anti-patriarch, and the beginning of true knowledge of precolonial Africa.  And I thank you for sharing her.

Rhone Fraser, Ph.D.
Editor / Writer / Artist / Minister